Doing our Duty
Preparing to lead worship in a village church I noticed a small leaflet from the 1950s hanging on the vestry wall. It listed the ‘duties of church membership’ and it was published in the name of both archbishops. I wonder if you could guess what they are? Attend church on a Sunday; attend Holy Communion regularly, read the Bible and pray daily; support the church and missions with financial giving, and uphold Christian marriage. All of these make perfect sense and the last on the list has a prophetic quality about it. There were two aspects of this straightforward teaching that would sit uneasily with some of the individuals I see for spiritual direction.
The first is the whole concept of duty. Duty is ‘something a person is expected to do,’ and the idea of being ‘expected to do so something’ does not fit well with modern sensibilities. Given the contemporary obsession with the individual’s right to choose, to extract a dutiful response from some individuals would be a challenge. The parable of the servant comes straight to mind: ‘when you have done all that you have to do say I am an unworthy servant and I have only done my duty.’ Duty is the action of an obedient, servant heart. As the leaflet reminds us, our baptism commissions us to be a ‘faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.’
Faithful duty fulfils the master’s will. It is living out the prayer: ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Duty is not often easy and convenient; duty can sometimes drive us into a painful inner conflict. The Ten Commandments spell out some duties. Consider ‘honour your father and mother,’ the idea that family life is held together by duty to divine commandment is not a popular one.
This brings me to another commandment: ‘keep the Sabbath Day holy, six days shalt thou labour and do all that thou hast to do, but the seventh day is hallowed to the Lord thy God.’ It is now recognized by many parish priests that the congregation take it in turns to have a Sunday off! Where did this idea come from? How has it become acceptable? Why is it even desirable? In ‘old money’ to miss church of a Sunday or a red-letter day is a mortal sin. What benefit can be found to individuals to experience the liturgical year with chunks missing? What benefit is there for the church community never to have all the ‘team’ present at once? There are none. The costs of not doing our duty on a Sunday are incalculable, yet this has become the norm.
That cannot be right. At an individual level, if you are serial absentee you have to take this duty to the heart of your prayers. Question your motives: is it really inevitable that you visit granny at that time, or go shopping, or watch cricket? If it is unavoidable that you cannot attend through work or an ‘act of charity’ then make up for it; become familiar with the times of all the Masses throughout the week, get up and go to an early one! Blessed Edward King taught ‘one man doing his duty can do great things for God.’ The opposite is also true.